[JURIST] Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard [official website] on Monday announced a national referendum [press release] that seeks to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian Constitution [materials]. Currently, although Aborigines make up almost three percent of the Australian population, they are not mentioned in the Constitution. The referendum will be among Australia’s first steps in efforts to build strong relationships of trust and mutual respect among the natives and the rest of Australia. In the statement, made jointly with Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin [official profile], the two officials stressed the need to incorporate native peoples into Australia’s founding document:
Recognition will demonstrate that we are a country that is united in acknowledging the unique and special place of our first peoples. The Government is pursuing an ambitious agenda to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage, including undertaking major reform and delivering unprecedented investment in early education, health, jobs, housing and services, and infrastructure. Formal recognition in our foundation document will build on this work by publicly acknowledging our history and the significant contribution that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to make to this nation.
As part of the process, Gillard and Macklin announced the formation of an expert panel to pose amendment changes that will appeal to the majority of Australians. The Australian Human Rights Commission [official website] voiced support [press release] for such a panel, calling it a “sensible approach” to ensuring that there is a broad pool of views needed to get a consensus on the proposed constitutional changes. The panel is expected to report back to the government [AFP report] with proposed options by the end of 2011 in time for voting to occur in line with the 2013 election.
In recent years, the Australian government has recognized the long history of discrimination and disadvantage among its native citizens, although its efforts have not always resulted in better conditions. In August, Amnesty International Australia (AIA) criticized the racial discrimination [JURIST report] that exists in Australia, which, according to AIA, violates the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [texts]. In June, the Australian government reinstated its previously suspended Racial Discrimination Act [JURIST report] in the Northern Territory, which allows governmental authorities to regulate how welfare money is spent by the indigenous people of the country. In March, UN special rapporteur James Anaya condemned the law [press release], calling it problematic from a human rights point of view. Last year, Australia endorsed [JURIST report] the aforementioned Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which reversed the position held by previous Australian governments. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd championed the cause of improved living conditions for and relations with Australia’s indigenous population during his term in office, and offered and official apology on behalf of the federal government in February 2008 for past mistreatment to the nation’s indigenous population.